The Tower of Lisa: As infrastructure rises, mayor pro tem hopes to as well
Lisa Middleton has been having a week, so you wouldn’t blame her if she was late. Except, being Lisa Middleton, she’s not late.
She arrives at our meeting point precisely at 1 PM in a basic black sedan. Is it a Ford? A Toyota? It’s hard to tell because it’s so unassuming. One thing that does stand out is that it’s a hybrid — standard issue for any aspiring California politician.
Clad in basic black slacks, a free-flowing turquoise blouse, and flats, I worry that she may not be prepared for the task we’re about to undertake. She’s invited me to hike out to a construction site for a cell phone tower. Those are on top of mountains, right? Thinking so, I’m wearing boots and I’ve had some protein.
“You ready?” asks Jaime Barker, a construction superintendent for Near-Cal Corp., the company tasked with building the tower, as he motions for me to climb into his truck for the drive to what I assume is a trailhead. Approximately 45 seconds later, we’re at the actual construction site, having navigated not a mountain trail but the cart path along the 14th hole of the South Course at Indian Canyons Golf Resort.
Middleton exits an SUV driven by Julio Figueroa, director of External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T in Riverside County. She gives the site a once-over, then begins the questioning.
“How soon till you pour concrete?” “Battery backup or generator?” “How tall?” “Anyone other than AT&T asking to mount equipment?” “How has it been dealing with the city?”
Between each question, she pauses, listening intently to the answers Barker and Figueroa are happy to supply. Both men credit the city and the owners of the golf course — the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians — for helping speed the project along. Middleton is pleased to hear that, and her eyes seem to light up as she talks about rebar and signal strength. I’m frantically searching for my pen, which seems to have fallen out of a shirt pocket somewhere near a small bulldozer.
“This is about as good of a location for that tower as we can get,” remarks Middleton. “There’s just no other place in this area that these homes can get help.”
That help will come in the form of a stronger cell signal once the 56-foot tower is completed and placed into service. Barker and Figueroa hope to begin “lighting it up” in early December. The homes are hundreds in Andreas Hills that were left isolated after the heaviest rainfall in city history washed out roads in their neighborhood and elsewhere in the Coachella Valley on Valentine’s Day 2019.
Middleton has represented the people in those homes on the Palm Springs City Council for four years. Back at our vehicles after the tour, we speak for a half-hour on topics both professional and personal, wandering on and off the record. She is both thoughtful and empathetic. I fear I’m going to write what amounts to a political puff piece, but so be it.
On the record, Middleton speaks of the years that have passed since the Valentine’s Day storm. She recalls her District 5 constituents who approached her multiple times to mention that they were left not only without ingress and egress to their neighborhood, but also without a vital lifeline to reach emergency services.
Cell service is notoriously weak in South Palm Springs, especially in neighborhoods boxed in by Murray Hill and the eastern base of Mt. San Jacinto. Middleton vowed to tackle the issue, and worked tirelessly to help bring what will amount to a signal boost for a two-mile radius surrounding the golf course.
“The flood really crystalized what the need was,” says Middleton. “We went five hours without access to the homes in Andreas Hills. They were really isolated and had no way in or out. And what made them more isolated was having poor to no cell reception.
“We’ve reached a point in how we use technology that being without cell service is a sense of being out of touch.”
Middleton is proud of what she’s delivering for the neighborhood. She often mentions its progress during City Council meetings. The topic produces nods from fellow councilmembers, but then it’s on to issues that make better headlines.
The cell tower is boring by design. There have been no protests, court cases, or yard signs planted by opponents. Middleton hasn’t had to defend her efforts in all-night social media sessions. It’s the type of work elected officials do in the background while being taken to task in public for all the ills that befall their cities. The tower will soon blend into the background, disguised as a palm tree in the center of a trio of real palm trees.
Middleton, who at 68 is next in line for Palm Springs’ primarily ceremonial role of mayor, has no plans to fade away. She announced her campaign for state senator representing District 28 three days before traipsing out to the construction site. A day after the site visit, she capped her week with an emotional, unifying speech during a ceremony honoring a pair of fallen Palm Springs police officers.
Current Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege also announced a campaign for higher office. She hopes to serve in the State Assembly. If either or both win, they will leave the City Council mid-term, leading to colleagues appointing their replacements or setting up a special election.
It’s a calculated risk with little to lose. But unless redistricting somehow paints the 28th District solidly blue — it has supported GOP candidates since 2014, despite slightly more registered Democrats — Middleton will have a tough time in Riverside County communities more used to seeing Trump Trains than history-making transgender policymakers.
“I’m hoping it will be a purple district,” she says. “And I have every reason to believe it will be.”
“You win elections by energizing your natural base of supporters and attracting people who haven’t made up their minds that you’re the better option than your opponent,” Middleton adds. “Some voters I won’t be able to reach. But some, I’m hoping will jump on board.”
Yes, Middleton became the first transgender person to be elected in California for a non-judicial position when she won a seat on the City Council in 2017 (she ran unopposed in 2020). She has been honored for her work advancing the visibility of the LGBTQ community and stands to receive even more accolades later this month. But it’s the boring stuff — a master’s degree in public policy, 36 years of service with the State Compensation Insurance Fund, and stints on multiple boards and commissions in Riverside County — that she thinks would serve her best in Sacramento.
The cell tower is an example of a public-private partnership that took collaboration, patience, and determination to make a reality. It’s a little thing that will make a big difference. But it’s also an example of how Middleton might go about navigating the State Capitol.
“There are some things only government can do,” Middleton says. “Then there are things a government entity can only do. Then there are things the private market can do much better. If you get good at recognizing that, that builds credibility for the difficult things you have to do when there are fundamental disagreements about which direction government should go.”
Which direction she thinks the state should go can be seen in a city that proudly waves multiple Pride flags, and that Middleton has called home with her wife Cheryl since 2013.
“Palm Springs clearly has an identity,” she offers. “We are proud of it. It’s who we are. It’s our brand. It’s small, but there is an incredible amount of talent here.
“Those talented people came to Palm Springs because they knew that who they are as human beings is going to be affirmed in this community. And look — the transit occupancy taxes are increasing here. The property values are increasing here. The sales tax revenue is increasing here. That’s an economic success. That diversity is what made that economic success possible.”
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ENCOUNTERS LEAD TO LOBBY CLOSURE: A Starbucks store in South Palm Springs has closed its interior seating and restrooms to customers following repeated disturbing incidents in recent weeks. The store, at 682 S. Palm Canyon Dr., will continue to serve customers at its drive-thru, but store management said the exterior doors will remain locked. “[W]e have done everything possible to make this a safe space for everyone,” a note taped to the exterior doors stated. “We know this may cause frustration and disruption for your experience and we apologize for that. We hope you understand our decision is to keep safety at the forefront of our decision.” At issue, employees said Monday, are multiple encounters — including some that have turned violent — between members of the homeless population in the area and employees, security guards, and customers. The incidents reported at Starbucks are just a few of the growing number of run-ins reported at city businesses. At a nearby grocery store, security cameras were recently erected in the parking lot due to an increase in shoplifting. The owners of a bicycle rental business in the area have posted videos of multiple thefts by brazen thieves who walk out of their shop with bicycles while the owners’ attention is diverted. Palm Springs police said earlier this year there had been an increase in property thefts and violent crime in the city.
VENEZIA CLOSES: Venezia Restaurant & Pizzeria has closed after four years at its 2500 N. Palm Canyon Dr. location. The owners made the announcement Monday, saying, “Due to family health issues, we just can’t go on any further.” “We had great memories with many of you and we will always cherish those special moments,” wrote owners Massimo Orru and Annie Ghareeb Orru. “Know that you all have special places in our hearts.“ The Orrus said they plan to remain in the city.
MIZELL EVENTS: Zumba, canasta, Spanish lessons, and more are offered today at the Mizell Center, 480 S. Sunrise Way. For more information about today’s offerings, click here.
MARKETING COMMITTEE: The Palm Springs Airport Commission Marketing Committee meets at 3 PM. Instructions for participating in the meeting, as well as a complete agenda, are available here.
ONE-PS: The Organized Neighborhoods of Palm Springs (ONE-PS) monthly membership meetings begins at 5:30 PM. For more information on the meeting and how you can attend virtually, see the organization’s website here.
SCHOOL BOARD: The Palm Springs Unified School District Board of Directors holds its regular meeting at 6 PM at district headquarters, 150 District Center Dr. A complete agenda can be found here.
ONGOING & UPCOMING
VOTING UNDERWAY: Our partners at The Coachella Valley Independent have started the next step in the process of determining the best of the best in the Coachella Valley for 2021-2022. The top vote-getters in each category have been selected, and now you can vote for the winners. To vote for your favorite in any one of multiple categories, start here.
NEW SHOW: Ben Zook, one of the creators and stars of the Web series Where the Bears Are, has a new one-person show in Palm Springs, The Dirty Show, playing Wednesday evenings this month. In the show, Zook plays Skyler Gentry, described as America’s favorite actor-singer-dancer-psychic. Zook promises an evening filled with raunchy songs, comedy monologues, and psychic readings. “Written with Palm Springs specific jokes and musical ditties, it’s a campy, gay evening that you’ll never forget,” he said. The Dirty Show takes place outside at Dietl Art, 4629 E Sunny Dunes Rd. Doors open at 6:30 PM, and tickets are available here.
SINATRA CELEBRATION: Palm Springs Point of View, a YouTube channel that covers “Eats, Art and Culture” in Palm Springs and elsewhere in the Coachella Valley, is holding three events in the upcoming months to celebrate the life of Frank Sinatra, including one this week. The first Martinis and Moxie is scheduled for the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Rd., at 6 PM on Friday, October 15. Tickets for that event are available here. Hosted by Claudia Ried and Conrad Angel Corral, with piano music by Alan Kraemer, the event will feature cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, Sinatra tunes, and a discussion about the entertainer’s life in the Coachella Valley. After the event, guests are invited to stay for a screening of one of Sinatra’s films.
TAHQUITZ CREEK CLEANING: The Tahquitz Creek Yacht Club meets to clean up a portion of Tahquitz Creek Channel at 8 AM on the third Saturday of every month. The next cleanup is this weekend, Saturday, October 16. Volunteers gather at the south end of the footbridge at South Camino Real and South Riverside Drive. You can find the club’s Facebook page here, and contact the club via email at [email protected].
NEXT PLAY: Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Shrek The Musical opens October 22 and runs through November 7. Showtimes are 7 PM on Thursdays, 8 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 PM on Sundays. Tickets are $36 for general admission; $32 for seniors; and $15 for students. For tickets or other information, call the box office at 760-323-5123 or order online at PalmCanyonTheatre.org. The theater is located at 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, at the corner with Alejo Road. Box office hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 AM until 4 PM.
CENTER CELEBRATION: On Sunday, October 24 at 11 AM, the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert (The Center) officially cuts the ribbon after a multi-million-dollar renovation at its headquarters, the McDonald-Wright building, 1301 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Leading the ceremony will be Center executive director and CEO Rob Wheeler and Peter Daut, weekday anchor at KESQ-TV. Guests and speakers will include Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege and Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton. To register for the free event, go here.
PRIDE RUN: The Palm Springs Pride 5K Run & Walk takes place Saturday, November 6 at 8 AM. The event is both in-person and virtual for 2021. Registration is available here. The race is hosted by Palm Springs Front Runners & Walkers, a local chapter of International Frontrunners, an informal network of LGBTQ running groups around the world. Proceeds from the event benefit The LGBTQ Community Center of The Desert (The Center) and The Transgender Health and Wellness Center.
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